Rumble experienced a growing sense of dread as he re-read the orders McDowell had issued the previous night. It didn’t seem to occur to General McDowell that General Beauregard, whom he faced across Bull Run Creek in Northern Virginia, had sat in the same tactics classes at West Point for four years, taught by the same instructors.
He was alone in the staff tent behind Wilmer McLean’s farmhouse, which McDowell had chosen as his headquarters. It was five in the morning and according to these orders, some units were already in movement. The sum of the orders comprised a complicated turning movement for the assault this morning.
While several divisions would attack the Confederate left flank for the turning movement, another element would block reinforcements coming from the Shenandoah Valley, while another element would be a diversion, and another element would protect the rear.
These were not orders for a volunteer army, roughly trained, entering combat for the first time. These were orders that Napoleon’s Imperial Guard might have a chance to pull off. And they were orders Napoleon himself might have given, considering that Napoleonic tactics had been the military bible preached at West Point.
In the flickering candlelight, Rumble put the orders down and examined the Henry repeating rifle. Napoleon had not had such a weapon. Napoleon had been moldering in a grave for over forty years. In fact, during the Mexican War, the soldiers had not been armed with rifled muskets as they were now, yet the tactics had not grown with the weaponry. Rumble consoled himself by figuring Beauregard was issuing a similar set of complicated orders on the other side of Bull Run. And that Ben was heading west, to join a unit out there with Grant.
The flap on the tent twitched open and an excited young officer with a dispatch case over one shoulder rushed in. A cascade of golden locks flowed over the newly commissioned officer’s shoulders. He headed right for a pile of gear, but paused upon seeing Rumble.
“Master of the Horse,” George Armstrong Custer said. “What brings you here?”
“Lieutenant Custer,” Rumble said. “I’m on a special assignment.” Lincoln’s letter was in Rumble’s breast pocket, right next to Lidia and Ben’s etching.
Custer didn’t seem too interested. “I’m riding dispatches from General Scott to General McDowell. Just delivered a batch.” He pulled a stirrup out of the pile. “Lost mine crossing a river.”
A sharp crack in the distance split the air. Rumble had heard it before. A cannon firing. It was followed by a volley from a battery.
“Was that—“ Custer began, but Rumble heard another familiar sound and dove for the dirt. “Get down!”
A solid shell ripped through the farmhouse, passed through the tent’s canvas, and bounded onto the ground on the far side, its energy finally expended. Rumble got to his feet, dusting off the dirt.
Custer also got up, a crazed grin on his face. “Battle!”